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How ironic it is to be served alfalfa sprouts in the company cafeteria. I used to grow that stuff beyond sprouts into hay in a field next to our farm house. Back in the '50s, if you had predicted that prosperous, fairly normal people would eat alfalfa in a salad for lunch, you might have gotten a wide berth from sane folks in my area.

But Holsteins are right - the stuff is good for you. And there is something kinda special about growing acres of it into hay. The crop is finicky about how you prepare its seedbed. Won't fill out into a pretty stand unless you work the ground up well and even. But when you do this - and, even better, lime the field first - it grows up thick and dark green. The purple flowers are nice, particularly after the first cutting when the grasses that sneaked through the Winter to compete with the first hay growth are gone. After that, the alfalfa outgrows it to make a uniform lush crop of the green that cows love best.

We used to use a metal tub to spread out the fine, expensive seed for innoculation before planting. The black innoculating substance mixed through the seed - I believe we used a brand call Nitragin or some other such profitable misspelling - was black and looked a bit like fine ground peat moss. After planting, we prayed for avoidance of a hard rain but enough moisture to ensure even germination. Once you got a good stand, you were set for four or five years of lush growth. In our farm we got four to six cuttings a season, depending on the weather and other factors.

Like every chewing cow, rabbits, gophers, and horses all seem wild about it. The horsey set will tell you that alfalfa's not ideal for their noble steeds, but they have never been able to convince the horse of this. "It's hard on their kidneys" is the cliche, but any hungry horse I ever rode would pass an open bale of the "approved" timothy hay without hesitation to get to nearby alfalfa. Despite the fact that any critter that will eat himself to death quicker than the reigning two-legger is not to be trusted on matters of diet, the horse nonetheless has lots of company in his preference for alfalfa.

Like a cruise ship, an alfalfa field has lots of inhabitants that return faithfully to live in it every time it comes in. Birds, snakes and their furry lunch, good and bad bugs of all kinds, and rabbits love to live in it and will return to it every time it regrows. It is a perennial wildlife magnet. As an added bonus, while it grows it builds the soil for the crop to follow. (The roots from that innoculated seed fix nitrogen from the air to improve the soil's growing power.) For that reason, alfalfa in our county was often followed by corn. Like grass, corn just thrives on nitrogen. So after providing milk for a few years, this good hay helped grow bacon.

While a good stand looks handsome waving in a breeze, it is also beautiful when mowed closely and well and lays ready for raking on a gently rolling field. Also, I've always liked the smell of the dried hay and the aroma around the plants in the country that make alfalfa cubes. When I was both far less tall and less wide (we're talking ancient history), we would play hide and seek in grown alfalfa. To do so was to become intimately familiar with lady bugs, small spiders, and the other inhabitants of that world.  It was a pretty fair place to play as I recall, and I still feel lucky and grateful for the experience of it.


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